Ghanaian popular culture in the mid 90’s to 2000’s was defined by Hiplife music; a hybrid genre of classic HighLife guitar riffs and boom bap HipHop. Hiplife birthed a vibrant HipHop underground even though it didn’t go beyond high school and college circles in the beginning. It became a multi-lingual identifier that spoke to the Ghanaian experience and inspired a whole generation. Kobi Onyame shares his stories about what that era was like and how he found his sound plus what being away for so long is like for an artist.
ADA: For people who are not familiar with Kobi Onyame in Ghana and Africa, it will be good to do a quick recap of your career as a musician starting from Ghana and where you are now.
KO: So I came to Legon [University of Ghana] in 1999 and met with a crew of guys and started a clique called Haatsville. It was myself, Scratch, Myth but then he was the Rappertologist, it was a few of us actually. A couple of years later, Jayso joined as well, then I put out a mixtape in 2000 and as a Haatsville clique, we put out a mixtape as well. Around 2002/2003 we all went our separate ways and ended up in different parts of the world. I ended up in the UK, Rappertologist and David ended up in Atlanta and Jayso remained in Ghana. We just kinda been doing our things separately as solo artists since then. It’s been over ten years.
ADA: Between 1995 and 1999/2000 were the golden years of Ghanaian HipHop music. At the time Hiplife had taken off and there was a lot more pride in the culture and the language. People were expressing themselves with the language. But then side by side, there was also HipHop in English. A lot of time there’s been talk of friction between local language rappers and English rappers.
KO: I wasn’t here till 1999. So between 95 and 99 I wouldn’t really know. But when I got here, Reggie was blowing up. I remember there was this one time in M3nsa’s studio in 2000, it was me, M3nsa, Reggie, Cy Lover and a few other people just kind of hanging, Kwaku T just chilling. I don’t really remember any friction between English rappers and I guess local dialect rappers because Reggie used to do both. He was accepted, Reggie was accepted and I didn’t experience any real tension at the time. I think at the time to be honest, it was more so a case that we couldn’t express ourselves well in Twi or any other dialect. I’m a terrible Twi rapper. Every now and then I mix a bit of pidgin and slang here and there but I’m a terrible Twi rapper and that’s probably the reason why I don’t rap in Twi. But in my personal experience, there wasn’t any friction then. It was love. I think it was more so we just kind of all enjoyed it and we doing it for the fun, and just want to build the culture. I remember the first time I met CY Lover was on the basketball court at Legon [Uni. of Ghana] and we just got into a battle, and we just started rapping. It was just fun. To be honest there wasn’t any friction because none of us thought we were going to do it any longer than a couple of years.
ADA: How do you think the music has changed, from how Hiplife went through transmutations all the way through to Azonto, how has the music from the mid to late 90’s impacted the sound coming out of Ghana now?
KO: Personally I think people have kind of forgotten where the music comes from and I think they’ve forgotten to take pride in it. The first Reggie song I heard was “Keep Your Eyes on the Road.” This was a Ghanaian Highlife sample, crazy record. And there was another one which was Fela Kuti’s sample, “Ey3 Mo d3 Anaa?” Then I just thought we had a little more pride in our old HipHop because in the golden era Puffy used to flip old soul records and that type of stuff. I think to some extent what’s happened is the kids are looking too much to the West. I think we are looking too much to the US and imitating what’s going on over there. Don’t get me wrong, I think at some point we all wanted to be like them. At some point when I took a mic, I wanted to sound like Snoop Dogg. What happens in an artiste’s career eventually is that they find their voice and they find themselves. I don’t think Ghanaian HipHop necessarily has found its voice yet. But a few people are doing what I think Ghanaian HipHop should be in my opinion. But a majority is just imitating what’s going on in the US. It’s like when I’m in Accra and I’m trying to imitate Meek Mill, why would anyone listen to me while they’ve already got Meek Mill. Azonto, I guess was an African rhythm, azonto was huge. That was great. A lot of people jumped on the bandwagon. I think to some extent we’ve kind of lost a lot from where we come from. We try to imitate too much from the West.
ADA: What’s your personal take on Azonto?
KO: I like it. I really like it. I liked the first few Azonto tracks and then when it became a fad, I was like what’s happening now, because there’s so much to do with it. It’s like Trap to me. I’m not really the biggest Trap fan because I’m from the golden era so I like my Boom Bap. I like my sample soulful bass HipHop. I like some Trap songs but when it becomes watered down and just everyone is doing it, I’m like yeah. I like azonto, I like the first few tracks but now azonto has become a bit overdone. Everyone is doing the same thing; everyone is saying the same thing. The novelty is kind of dead.
ADA: How do you think a genre like Azonto can be extended?
KO: The one way I guess stuff like that can be extended is if we claim it, which we didn’t do in the first place and if we had the networks and the connections. So I guess like Wiz Kid and Chris Brown claimed it for Nigeria on 106 & Park. I think one of the first Azonto records was a Sarkodie and EL record. But that was very local in Ghana so that wasn’t going to go anywhere because there was nobody else on it. I don’t think I’ve heard a Ghanaian Azonto record that has someone as big as a Chris Brown or a Fuse on it. I think that’s the only way we can spread it, that’s if we start connecting with the rest of the world. Personally, I think if we keep it local and keep it to local artistes, then it’s not going to go anywhere apart from local artistes. If Sarkodie had done an Azonto record with – for a lack of a better description – Meek Mill or someone, that’s one way we can get it across the board. But that never happened. It took Wiz Kid to go on 106 & Park and do it with Chris Brown. Maybe it’s more so why we are not connected to move to people on that level. Personally I think the reason we are not moving to people on that level is because we are trying to imitate them too much. Chris Brown came to do a show in Ghana, didn’t he? When he came I’m pretty sure he heard so many different rappers and he probably thought all these rappers sound like what we’ve already got. I think we’ve got a lot to learn and kind of figure out who we are and claim it to some extent. I don’t think there’s any reason for us to mimic what’s out there. There’s so much richness in here. Personally I like what Wanlov is doing. I love what M.anifest is doing. I love what Jayso is doing. This is because you won’t hear another Wanlov anywhere else; you won’t hear another M.anifest anywhere else, you won’t hear another M3nsa anywhere else. But there’s a few people out there, especially HipHop, they sound just like someone else. As far as Azonto, personally I think it is done. We need to find somebody to come out with the next sound and then own it, and try and connect better this time. Connect with the Diaspora or few bigger names.
ADA: How has moving back to the UK affected your sound and you mentioned connecting with the diaspora, has your being in the UK put you in touch with more of a particular Diaspora than being here?
KO: I moved between countries so I grew up listening to loads of Daddy Lumba that my dad would play, loads of gospel music my mum would play, loads of Oasis that my friends would play. And then when I came back to Legon [University of Ghana], I listened to the Reggies and Obrafours. So it’s a big melting pot of sounds. If you listen to my Green Green Grasses album, it is just a big melting pot of sounds. I’ve got a Highlife influenced record, I’ve got kind of a dance, EDM style, Pop record, I’ve got an acoustic kind of guitar led record. That’s me and I can only be me. I only know how to be me. I wouldn’t say I’m completely Afro influenced because I’m not. So I don’t know how to be completely Afro influenced. But then being in the UK, I think I’ve connected with some UK based Ghanaians. I’d say American based Ghanaians but they are not that many, I’d say Blitz, and Jerra who’s in Toronto. It kind of gives you the opportunity to connect with the diaspora out there. I think for me personally my benefit is I think I’ve had this melting pot of all these different sounds. So it creates a sound that I believe doesn’t sound like nobody else, because it’s not just Ghanaian influenced, but also influenced by the rock and guitar led indie music and EDM music, and just everything.
ADA: So what about black artistes from other countries, like black artistes from the UK, from America, and the Caribbean?
KO: I wouldn’t say I’ve connected much with black artistes from other countries. That’s one thing I want to do. I want to connect also with a lot more people in Africa. So South African artistes, and Zimbabwean, and Kenyan artistes, that, I haven’t done at all. It’s weird because my Green Green Grasses album got support in Ghana but my last album Glory didn’t get any support in Ghana probably because it was very boom bap, soul and 90’s based HipHop so I didn’t really get that much support out here [Ghana] . But on this new album I’m recording, I’m trying to connect with more people here [Ghana] because I’d really love to infuse that sound. I want to go back to what Reggie was doing and taking a Fela record and taking some Ofori Amponsah kind of record and sampling and flipping that stuff and making good HipHop music that way, because I think that’s the only way we can. This is our sound and there’s nothing like this out there.
ADA: Who are you checking out on the Continent?
KO: On the continent? You know what? I’d only say in Ghana because I don’ know a lot of people on the continent. For me, in Ghana it’s Jayso, M.anifest, Wanlov, M3nsa, Reggie (always, because I look up to him) and Panji. I love Panji. Panji was actually one of the guys who taught me how to produce. So a lot of my sound comes from listening and watching him work. I could say other people but I’d be lying. I like Sarkodie because there’s no one that sounds like him. But even that I do think sometimes with what he has, jumps on every trap American sound and I’m like I don’t know if that’s going to work.
ADA: What are you working on now?
KO: I’m working on a new album. I don’t have a release date yet to be honest. I reckon probably end of the year, probably 2016. I’m not in a rush to put it out at all. I just want to take time and soak up some stuff. New album, new kind of label project in the UK as well. So I’ve got like this House kind of Dance producer who I’m working with. So we’ve got a couple of singles. Yeah! We just making music.
Peep Kobi’s latest release below.
Interview and Photos by Mantse Aryequaye.